The Functional Medicine Approach to Detoxification

Every day your body is exposed to harmful chemicals.  Once these chemicals enter the body they are referred to as xenobiotic.  A xenobiotic is a chemical compound (such as a drug, pesticide, or carcinogen) that is foreign to a living organism.  Many of these xenobiotics are also endocrine disruptors, meaning they may mimic or interfere with the body’s hormones, known as the endocrine system. 

Our liver, kidneys, large intestines, lymphatic system and sweat glands all work together to reduce the buildup of these chemicals.  This process is called detoxification or detox.  Of these organ systems, your liver plays one of the largest roles.  

Toxins come in many forms.  Exposure to the air you breathe, the stress we feel and the food we eat can add up to over 14 pounds of pesticides, herbicides, food additives and preservatives for the average American per year.  The amount of toxins in a person’s body is a result of three main factors. 

First, everyone has a different toxin exposure.  Secondly, we all have genetic differences in how a person’s body is able to produce the enzymes that regulate detoxification.  Finally, a person’s eating pattern can either support or hinder the body’s ability to process and eliminate toxins.  The following are some of the most common presenting symptoms that may indicate your total body burden of toxins has exceeded your body’s ability to eliminate them: 

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irritability, anxiety, and depression 
  • Brain fog or difficulty concentrating
  • Sugar cravings.
  • Trouble losing weight especially around your abdomen
  • Skin issues (breakouts, eczema, redness)
  • Chronic digestive issues

We have all heard the saying “We are what we eat” and while this is true, a more appropriate view is “We are what we Eat, Drink, Absorb, Breathe, Touch ….and can’t Eliminate.”  Lowering the Toxic Body Burden or Total Toxic Load is vital to our health.  

Total Toxic Load=Total Toxic Exposure -Ability to Eliminate Toxins 


In Functional Medicine, we take a nutrient-based approach to metabolic detoxification. The reason some people may not be able to overcome toxic exposures is that they do not have adequate nutritional status.  Various nutrients are needed to fuel detox pathways and support the liver. A deficiency of any of them could mean an increased body burden or buildup of chemicals.  

Additionally, specific foods can support metabolic processes of changing toxic chemicals and waste products to less harmful forms and assist in their elimination.  Therefore, the dietary plan to support detox focuses on adding in natural and whole foods to provide the nutritional support for detoxification processes. 

Eating a diet containing anti-inflammatory food components, including omega-3 fatty acids (richest source is Wild Alaskan Salmon) and polyphenols/antioxidants from colorful, organic whole plant base foods can reduce the oxidative stress-inflammation from toxins.  Aim for diversity in a Detox Diet to fully harness the power of phytonutrients.  

Plants are detox modulators as they:

  • Support the production of specific enzymes that support detoxification
  • Provide a source of soluble and insoluble fiber that can bind toxins before they enter the body 
  • Contain phytonutrient antioxidants for protection of detoxification pathways 

Four Basic Questions to ask about your diet:

  1. Am I getting a variety of foods?
  2. Am I eating the rainbow of natural, color based whole foods?
  3. Am I focused on the quality of the food?
  4. Am I aware of how my body is responding? 

Clean Protein + Colorful Plants support our body’s ability to remove toxins.  


Aim for diversity in a detox diet with a focus on both the quantity and quality of foods in your diet.  Select foods that are nutrient-dense and rich in antioxidants.  It is vital to “Eat the Rainbow” daily as each pigment in vegetables, fruits and all plant-based foods represents specific functions within the body.  There is a functional specificity for each color pigment.  In other words, these colors work together as a synergistic team to build in the protection needed for bodily functions and to support detoxification.  Variety is a key component of a healthy diet to maximize the synergy of certain combinations of foods. 

Phytonutrients and Fiber 

Aim for 9-13 SERVINGS of plant-based foods daily. For vegetables, a serving is generally considered ½ cups cooked or 1 cup raw.  Remember that beneficial plant-based foods encompass more than vegetables and fruits.  Herbs and spices are nutrition powerhouses containing numerous phytonutrients in very small serving sizes of just a few teaspoons. 

Also nuts/seeds and organic gluten-free whole grains such as quinoa count.   If 9-13 servings seem overwhelming to you, aim for at least 5-6 servings, and adjust the serving size.  Smaller amounts of many phytochemical colors may have a greater beneficial effect than larger amounts of fewer phytochemicals.  Diversity in our diets equals resilience and a strong nutritional reserve to draw from. 

Many herbs and spices naturally have antioxidant and detoxification properties. The following is a list of the health properties of just a few of the herbs and spices that you might consider incorporating into your meal planning to maximize the detoxification power of your foods. 

  • Turmeric -Protects the liver from toxins and has potent anti-inflammatory properties.  Healthy fats and black pepper increase the absorption and function of turmeric.  Potentiate benefits. 
  • Oregano and Ginger-activate glutathione the body’s major antioxidant and detoxification molecule.
  • Garlic- Contains sulfur compounds that support detoxification and allicin has natural anti-bacterial properties. 

Adequate fiber intake is essential for healthy detoxification, as it can increase clearance of toxins by binding with them in the gastrointestinal tract and preventing them from being absorbed into the body.  

A variety of fibers sources is important as different types of fibers bind with different toxins.  In addition, a diverse fiber intake seeds a diverse microbiome, further strengthening your body’s detoxification power.   A robust healthy diverse microbiome plays a major role in detoxification.

Also, bitter foods such as cruciferous and dark green leafy vegetables, arugula, coffee, dark chocolate, green tea, and cranberries stimulate liver function and detoxification.  


  • All toxins are eliminated through the same pathways and all these pathways are nutrient dependent. 
  • Nutrient density and phytonutrient/fiber diversity is vital.  
  • Think clean protein, plants, and healthy fats as the basis of your diet. 

Why some people retain-or are more sensitive to toxins

  • Overwhelming toxic load
  • Poor Elimination
  • Intestinal Dysbiosis or imbalance of the microbiome
  • Nutrient Deficiencies 
  • High sugar/artificial sweetener, low protein diets inhibit biotransformation and detoxification
  • Oxidative Stress
  • Chronic Inflammation
  • Stress, emotional trauma
  • Genetic polymorphisms in enzymes related to detoxification

Detoxification Functional Medicine Principles

  • Minimize exogenous toxic exposure
  • Insure adequate hydration and excretion
  • Enhance antioxidant reserve 
  • Downregulate inflammation with essential fatty acids and antioxidants
  • Sweat it out!  Heavy metals and other contaminants are found in sweat, leading to the conclusion that sweating is a potential method for the elimination of heavy metals
  • Move more-think circulation and FLOW! 
  • Restorative Sleep is vitally important to adequate detoxification 

Minimize Toxic Exposure

  • Eat fresh food (not canned or wrapped in plastic)
  • Drink purified or spring water not in plastic bottles
  • Avoid plastics all together
  • Eat organic as much as possible
  • Minimize alcohol intake.  Over 90% of alcohol is metabolized by the liver, which then diminishes the liver’s ability to detoxify other chemicals.   Do not mix acetaminophen (Tylenol) with alcohol as both place a detoxification burden on the liver. 
  • Use natural cosmetics, shampoos, nail polish and fragrances
  • Minimize stress and toxic habits
  • Avoid non-stick cookware.  Better choices would be cast iron and stainless steel, glass, and stone ware. 

Thus, one’s dietary intake and environmental influences may have large bearing on the incidence of toxic burden and chronic disease.  Please visit the Environmental Working Group website for guidance on how to minimize your exposure to chemicals in food and personal care products.

At AustinMD our clinicians are experts in designing personalized detoxification protocols and clinical recommendations to maximize the effects of food and nutrients and reduce the impact of toxins. 


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